Possible Path to a Freer Society: A Recap

A majority of my posts over the past couple of months have been concerned in one way or another with a possible transition to a freer and more equal society. This has been largely motivated by the diverse commentary of regular contributors, which is really helping to move my understanding forward. Although the connections between the various threads are quite clear in my own mind, and probably pretty clear to regular commentators, even some of the basic connections might be lost on occasional visitors. The purpose of this post is to summarize the major connections I perceive and my current position. There are disagreements on all these issues, and my own thinking is in flux as I continue to reflect on the various arguments being expressed. The quality of the commentary enhances the blog immeasurably. Thank you to all contributors.

What Would a Post Capitalist Society Entail?

Regular readers will be aware that I am influenced by Marx, especially Capital, Theories of Surplus Value, and Grundrisse. Nevertheless, when it comes to understanding how we might move forward from our present society to a post-capitalist one, I consider Marx to be of only limited relevance. He is helpful for understanding the logic of capital or, in other words, understanding capitalism on its own terms. He also identifies what would need to be eliminated from the current system to be completely beyond capitalism; namely, an end to the commodification of labor power and the wage labor relation. However, his work is of less help in showing how we could get from our current system to a post-capitalist one. He does provide a clear hint of what he thought, in broad terms, in Critique of the Gotha Program, but it is only sketchy and of limited use for us now in looking to the future.

In Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx’s notion of ‘lower form’ communism involves a system of labor certificates that ties income strictly to labor time except to the extent that there would be a physical surplus remaining for dependents (such as retirees, children, home parents), productive investment and a few other purposes. All labor time would be treated as equal. In exchange for the performance of a certain amount of labor time, workers would receive a certificate entitling them to a corresponding amount of real goods and services.

Marx’s notion of ‘higher form’ communism is a non-monetary system in which society has progressed to such a degree that each person contributes voluntarily what they can and receives what they need (“from each according to ability, to each according to need”). In such a society, there would be a complete separation of labor time and income.

It seems to me that in a few respects we have already advanced beyond lower form communism, while in most other respects we are far short of it. The public provision in many countries of free education, free health care, unemployment benefits or social insurance, and redistributive taxes and transfers all begin to separate labor time and income to an extent. Moving to lower form communism would actually be a backward step in this specific sense, because it would reinforce the notion that labor time and income must be strictly connected even though we have already moved beyond this level of consciousness to some degree under capitalism.

I have argued (e.g., here) that, if it were the social will, we would actually be able to progress a long way toward higher form communism under a fiat-money system. Apart from the monetary aspect, which diverges from Marx’s notion of a non-monetary economy, it would be possible for us to abide by the ideal “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. My reasoning is that fiat money, operated under a flexible exchange rate, enables any mix of private and public sector activity we might desire. The logic of capital could be operative to the extent we desired, or inoperative. Goods and services could be provided free or at positive prices in the proportion we came to prefer. In short, anything from laissez faire to the complete elimination of capital and the wage labor relation would be possible.

I think a revolution that, following Marx, attempted to institute lower form communism would be a backward step at least in the following two ways:

i) As mentioned already, income would be tied more strictly to labor time than it is at present, which would only further entrench the commodification of labor power. A labor-certificate system under purely state-owned industry would not be sufficient to end the wage labor relation, because workers would still be getting remunerated in exchange for labor time.

ii) Given the current state of collective consciousness, coercive measures more draconian than what we have now would be required to keep dissenters (including the old ruling class and much of the old upper middle class) obedient to the new system in which their labor time would suddenly be treated as equivalent to that of all other workers.

I have suggested that a more promising approach would be to start with a conscious consideration of our present situation, and its openings and possibilities. Marx himself wrote the following in his Critique of the Gotha Program:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.

Capitalism has developed a great deal since Marx wrote this passage. In doing so, it has created openings for progressive change, often out of developments that, in themselves, are negative. Decades-long mass unemployment, though awful in itself, makes us more accustomed to the idea that some people will receive income assistance without engaging in wage labor. Extreme inequality and outrageous bonuses for incompetent CEOs familiarize us with the idea that income and labor time need not always be connected. Capitalism promises freedom, liberty and equality before the law but then succeeds in delivering on these promises only in very limited ways, leaving us wanting more. These and many other developments under capitalism may raise consciousness or create opportunities for further social progress.

Creating the Preconditions for Freedom and Equality

Some commentators, even if sympathetic to my argument, object to what they see as nineteenth century thinking, such as framing the issues in terms of capitalism versus socialism or communism. Although, in my view, Marx’s categories are still helpful for understanding the logic of capital, I agree that it may be beneficial, when thinking about the future, to lose terms that may seem archaic and uninspiring to many people. Partly for this reason, I intend increasingly to frame the discussion more in terms of freedom and equality and other ideals our current system has encouraged us to embrace in various ways.

Another aspect that I am yet to consider in any depth is the challenges of environmental sustainability. Although previous posts hold implications that are relevant to this challenge, these implications remain to be properly integrated into the discussion. This is a challenge for future posts.

Placing the focus of discussion on freedom, equality, environmental sustainability and other social ideals may better reflect the openness that modern monetary systems provide in terms of social choice. The focus can be on how we might put in place some of the preconditions for a freer, more equal and sustainable society, whether that remains predominantly a market-based economy, leads increasingly toward a system of gift exchange, or involves primarily the distribution of free goods and services. In view of the recent disagreements that have emerged in the blogosphere over policy and politics, this may also enable a more inclusive framing of the discussion, although avoiding policy questions will be impossible in dealing with the issues I hope we can address here and at similarly focused blogs.

My current thinking (e.g., here) is that genuine freedom would involve an increasing separation of labor time and income, but only to the extent and at the pace that people wished for this to occur. This is a contentious point with which several regular contributors take issue and there is still much to thrash out. My position is that the least coercive way to facilitate this progression (though still only an early step) would be to:

i) Recognize that anybody who wants to participate in the wage labor relation should be able to do so. This would ensure that nobody was compelled to leave the wage labor relation against their will. (Job Guarantee.)

ii) Allow individuals who are already keen to leave the wage labor relation to do so by providing everybody with an unconditional basic income. (Basic Income Guarantee.)

I have argued that the implementation of these two policies would then be likely to have beneficial flow-on effects. In particular, workers would have greater freedom to take jobs they found worthwhile, even if they paid little or nothing. This, in turn, would give enterprises offering meaningful employment a competitive advantage over enterprises that did not.

The relevant literature suggests that monetary incentives are most effective in the case of menial or unpleasant jobs and much less so in the case of creative, challenging, intellectual or autonomous roles. This seems significant, because it is menial, repetitive or uncreative tasks that are easiest to mechanize. If an unconditional basic income were introduced, some workers would probably opt out of lousy jobs, preferring free time or lower paid but more fulfilling work. Employers offering lousy jobs would find that they needed to offer higher wages. This might attract some workers. It might make a reorganization of production or mechanization more viable in comparison (which, in my view, would be a good thing). It might mean that those roles disappeared altogether. Or, if the roles were socially necessary, it might mean the mechanization of the productive activity would be subsidized or provided in the public sector, if this was the political will.

The dynamic set in play would make possible an increasing separation of labor time and income. However, the connection would by no means disappear in the foreseeable future because, given current attitudes, many people would prefer to earn much more income than is provided by the unconditional basic income and might still be motivated more by money than other considerations. Even so, it would allow people to opt for free time as they became ready for it, along with the lower personal income that this entailed.

The more that productivity advanced, the higher real living standards in general would tend to rise, including the level of the basic income. The quality of life would also rise in many ways that might remain unmeasured because of all the non-monetary activity occurring on a voluntary or gift-exchange basis outside the wage labor relation. Notions of value based on labor time would become less relevant, requiring more appropriate conceptions of value to include the wide array of non-monetary factors contributing to individual and social well being.

True Progress Requires a Withering Away of Coercive Measures

True social progress is only possible to the extent people are ready to embrace it. Otherwise coercion is required far beyond simply an enforced tax obligation and the occasional resort to the state’s monopoly on violence. Coerced behavior is not reflective of real social progress. The policy approach I am suggesting seems to offer the most freedom of choice for everybody while still setting in play a progressive dynamic. It forces no one to stop seeking high incomes and wealth, but makes it viable for others to live more modestly if they wish.

To the extent people took the latter option, this would also help in terms of the burden we place on the environment, since these individuals would voluntarily be opting to leave a smaller ecological footprint. To the extent environment-conscious enterprises were advantaged through job applicants being able to exercise their preference for jobs engaged in sustainable production, this would also help to address the issue.

In closing, I should reiterate that I am not suggesting that this line of policy is an answer to everything. The focus has been quite narrow, leaving out of consideration all kinds of important issues such as the public-private mix, the role of regulation, the amount of income redistribution, and many other issues. Nevertheless, I do think that this policy approach would enable us to take a significant step in the right direction while also being compatible with the pursuit of a wide array of alternative social objectives.


13 thoughts on “Possible Path to a Freer Society: A Recap

  1. Good analysis as a starting point for discussion. I agree about Marx. He is one of the giants on whose shoulders to stand. But the West is in denial of his contributions, owing to historical circumstances that don’t really affect Marx’s relevance other than emotionally.

    I agree with Milton Friedman on a few things, and his statement that there is good economics and bad economics rather than one of other of the various schools being right. If economics is a science, then the good should be added to the store of knowledge and the bad consigned to the history books.

    It is important to remember that Marx was not chiefly an economist. He taught himself the economics of the time later in life as he came to see the importance of it for social and political thought. He was a philosopher that specialized in social and political philosophy. He was involved in a contemporary debate of these issues in terms of history, contemporary conditions, and contemporary thinking. In so far as he was a person of his time, Marx’s thought is no longer particularly relevant. But as a seminal thinker his influence remains significant.

    Marx was a libertarian. He was for freedom and looked forward to the withering away of the state, which he saw as historically necessary for humanity in a relatively undeveloped state but in itself an affront to the human spirit in its potential.

    On the other hand, Marx recognized that the trifecta of social and political philosophy is liberty, equality, and solidarity or community. The challenge is developing a society of free individuals, where the reciprocal right of all are respected, and no individual or group of individuals dominates society.

    Marx’s project was all about unfolding inherent human potential in the tradition of Aristotle. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks what happiness (eudaimonia) consists in. The conclusion of Aristotle’s investigation is that happiness is not something that can be sought as an end in itself, e.g., fame, fortune, power, or pleasure. Rather, happiness is the by-product of the prusit of excellence (arete), that is, living the good life; for Aristotle was a student of Plato and a grand-student of Socrates. In this tradition, the good life is unfolding one’s potential as an individual, which is unique to oneself, and as a human being, which is the same for all, that is, the acquisition of “wisdom” (sophia). “Philosopher” means lover of wisdom, and all humans are called to the pursuit of wisdom by virtue of their being “rational.” This wisdom is not merely intellectual, however. Wisdom is holistic, horizontally and vertically. Moreover, human beings are inherently social (herd animals) rather than operating individuals (lone hunters). Marx studied anthropology and was a founder of sociology, so he understood such issues.

    Like Hegel, Marx was quite familiar with ancient Greek thought. Marx did his PHD thesis comparing the views of Democritus and Epicurus. Both philosophers were in the tradition of Western philosophy and approached problem-solving from that vantage.

    Marx proposed to stand the practice of philosophy on its head, however. In his view, philosophy had departed from its Greek roots, where it was conceived as a way of life, to become an intellectual endeavor seeking to understand the concrete in abstract terms — which is what science does for example, in expressing change in terms of invariant relationships involving quantity. The goal of philosophers was to do something similar with respect to quality.

    Marx thought that the traditional approach to philosophy in its search for universals was too static. For him, philosophy properly conceived was oriented to effecting change, not theorizing about abstractions.

    Marx was not a visionary. He was intensely practical in an age of revolution. It is not possible to understand Marx independently of his time. He considered himself in the tradition of the revolutions that had already taken place, especially in America. Continental Europe was then in its revolutionary period (1848). While the revolutions of 1848 were not successful, the ancient regime in Europe was gone in Europe post WWI, and in China post-WWII. Marx can take considerable credit for provoking that change.

    However, the issues confronting the world now are far different. Looking back can be helpful but new solutions are required to meet new condition. Globalization is the overwhelming contemporary issue of our time socially, politically, and economically. This requires a global approach socially, politically and economically, which involves global thinking and viewing the world as the habitat for humanity rather than as a collection of nation states competing for territory and resources, as in the past.

    The present approach and the institutions to which it gave rise is obsolescent, and this is the origin the problems. This issue needs to be addressed before the existing approach become obsolete and challenges arise that humanity cannot overcome. There is reason to think the the population is reaching the limit that the planet can sustain given the present approach. Therefore, the issues not only progress but also sustainability.

  2. My preferred bet for evolution towards post-capitalism is “mutualism” or “economic democracy” or “firm partnership”. The main idea is that in a partnership firm, the employer-employee relationship or wage labor does not exist as all people involved in the firm are partners, holding, under appropriate conditions, firm’s capital (not to be confused with ESOPs and related approaches which are quite “proto” relative to the concept).

    This idea proposes some sort of minimal divergence to today’s ecology of firms as firmswould continue to exist as well as markets and a monetized economy.

    I also imagine that it can draw heavily on the collective psyche of the hunter-gatherer stage in which the homo sapiens species was born and lived for many more thousands of years than in dominant slavery or wage labor. By force of circumstances hunter-gatherers must have been partners.

    David Ellerman’s site


    has lots of useful stuff on the subject of “economic democracy” and “firm partnership”.

    Partnership firms *do* exist, albeit with a very, very low profile.

    The site


    references some.

    It is also a bit cute to observe that in seventies, some economists were busy developing the macro-economics of partnership firms. One can google for Jaroslav Vanek.

    I do agree that terms as socialism and communism are useless in present days. Their “correct” meaning is irrecoverably lost – let one just notice that they are most often associated to the former USSR bloc countries which were in fact prime example of state capitalism led to the extreme of everybody being an employee.

    I also do agree that any evolution to a post-capitalist society must be framed in a non-coercive way.

    That’s one reason I do like MMT and the social stance of MMTers. Basically, what is being proposed is a “human face capitalism” – expression that takes me back to my youth, the Prague Spring and Dubcek…:-)

    The proposal of MMT is not only of a human face capitalism. It is also of a capitalism open to peaceful and non-coercive evolution where people would be free to stay there for any time they would wish, go to a hybrid or beyond, at the pace they would wish…

  3. Very though provoking and well-reasoned post, Peter, as always. You bring out an aspect of Marx’s thought that he seems to share with some of the laissez faire theorists who are usually thought to be his opponents. Both have a view of human social life that is to my mind a bit too “optimistic”. (I hate to use that word, because it suggests that the alternative is pessimism. But I can’t think of a better term right now.)

    I always start from the idea that a complex and sophisticated society is a very, very difficult thing to organize. The production and distribution of a large and diverse assortment of goods and services, in the kinds of varieties free and diverse people desire on a predictable schedule, and the maintenance of systems and patterns of everyday life that make our existence tolerably secure and predictable, and not fraught with intolerable frustrations and anxieties, will always require, I think, some measure of enforced commitments and coercion.

    I don’t believe we can envision another way of life just by vaguely appealing to future changes in “consciousness”, because the fundamental challenge of social life is not a question of good will or having the right attitudes, or the right moral and spiritual insights. It’s more a matter of the inherent difficulty of organizing extremely large numbers of limited, erratic and willful human beings into a successful social enterprise.

    I don’t think we have a right to expect our social life to be easy, or free of the onerous demands, requirements, rules and expectations of others. What we do have a right to expect and work for is that the distribution of that burdens is just and equitable, and that we share among ourselves equal responsibilities for social decision-making. We can also, I think, hope for a world in which the coercive element of life is exercised democratically, without a distinction between owners and workers. But what Marx and the libertarians seem to share is a desire to be in a society and separate from it at the same time, a dream of an Arcadian, individualistic freedom that is incompatible with the demands of social life.

    My worry is that by indulging the anarchistic impulse to escape social obligations, debts, requirements, etc. – an impulse that we experience from a very young age onward – we recreate again and again the conditions for exploitation, domination and hierarchy. Another way of looking at it is that by so much emphasizing the negative freedom from coercion we deprive ourselves of the positive freedoms that can only be created in a well-functioning and predictable social system, and create the unregulated spaces in which ruthless exploiters thrive.

    All that said, I accept that when people live under a social system that works well, the need for coercion is diminished over time as people come to have faith in the system, and perform their expected roles out of good will rather than requirement. Some of the most socially coherent and best-organized societies have low rates of criminality. But I don’t think we can ever reasonably hope for a system in which we experience everything we do as a purely voluntary and coercion-free choice.

  4. Socrates’ contribution: “Know thyself”.

    Of course, what thy ‘Self’ is and the relation of that self to the world in which we live is the noblest challenge!

    The self looks out through a ‘window’ in its ‘house’ at the world; moves on to the next window, moves on to the next window … sometimes, it leaves its home and wanders through the world … thinking, thinking, thinking …

    How shall it see itself? Who can give such a mirror? Socrates did not elaborate. Kabir did …!

  5. Dan: I always start from the idea that a complex and sophisticated society is a very, very difficult thing to organize.

    It is not only complex and difficult to organize but also costly. The percentage allocated to organization rises exponentially with the size and complexity of the group. At a certain point the expense either become too great to bear and more and more people are employed in societal organization, which means allocating more and more of the surplus to them, or else, the society becomes so unwieldy that it breaks down.

    The anarchist solution is to decentralize into networks of small communities. This would mean a completely different type of economic system than presently exists, and that is an assumption anarchists make.

    On the other hand, Libertarians rely on loosely regulated or non-regulated market solutions based on individual freedom of choice and pursuit of max u.

  6. jrbrach: How shall it see itself? Who can give such a mirror? Socrates did not elaborate. Kabir did …!

    Well, I would not say that Socrates did not elaborate. See for instance the renown “ladder of love” soliloquy in The Symposium, and the cave analogy in The Republic.

    Perennial wisdom is found in both East and West, in fact, across time everywhere, although it has been more clearly and explicitly stated in the East due to cultural taboos in the West.

    But that is changing quickly as the world shrinks due to technological advances. Perennial wisdom is taking on a global character.

    See, for instance, Meher Baba, “The New Humanity,” in Discourses. A number of sages have said that humanity is entering a new cycle, a golden age or age of enlightenment. Ravi Batra, a follower of P. R Sakar (Shrii Shrii Anandamurti), based his theory of economic history on this teaching. See, for instance, The New Golden Age: The Coming Revolution against Political Corruption and Economic Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan 2007).

  7. “I don’t believe we can envision another way of life just by vaguely appealing to future changes in “consciousness”, because the fundamental challenge of social life is not a question of good will or having the right attitudes, or the right moral and spiritual insights. It’s more a matter of the inherent difficulty of organizing extremely large numbers of limited, erratic and willful human beings into a successful social enterprise.” [DanK]

    Driving down an eight lane highway at 100kph Dan, how much consciousness would you like to put aside?

    Thanks for the reading list TomH.

  8. jrbarch,

    I’m not sure what you are saying. I’m not arguing against the need for conscious reflection, insight and wisdom in human life. My point is that a society does not achieve a stable system for solving a massive coordination problem just by having a higher level of spiritual attainment.

  9. My apologies in not being clear Dan – I find it actually very difficult to use words (symbols) to convey meaning when the ‘meaning’ is based on experience. In my little world of understanding, ‘consciousness’ is far different to your “conscious reflection, insight and wisdom in human life”; and I have absolutely no idea what “spiritual attainment” is? Consciousness to me is an entity whereas “conscious reflection, insight and wisdom in human life” is mind; the two are vastly different in my experience although the latter an outcome of the former. And because of this relation, a change in the consciousness (being) automatically translates as a change in the mind – in the same way water flows downhill easily.

    I had a glance at The Symposium and The Republic last night and was very interested in the way that people’s minds work. But the conclusion was the same: there is a difference between a description of food and eating the food. I also read with interest all that you, peterc, TomH and MMT et al have to say and think that it is highly valuable and timely. I enjoy reading well written, quality articles – there is so much brain-farting goes on.

    I try to find ways to say that it is human beings that matter; that each ‘consciousness’ is what really matters; and that a change in that consciousness will translate as change in this world.

    And to that end ‘Peace’ (the ability to recognise and feel an universal energy within the consciousness – as opposed to the usual understanding of peace as something on the outside) promises to deliver that change in reality; and thinking comes after the fact.

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think so based on what I have seen looking out my little ‘window’.

    I don’t want to detract from any of the discussions above, but feel this point is a part of the overall picture, simply because we are human! And so, I try to say it!!

    Cheers …

  10. I agree with jrbarch on the need for a rise in consciousness. Without it, I think we’re in deep trouble.

    Looking back, I think we’ve come some way. We seem less racist, sexist or homophobic than half a century ago. This represents real social progress that I doubt would have been possible without a change in consciousness.

    We seem to be dragging our heels when it comes to economic justice, probably because, ultimately, TPTB care more about controlling real wealth than preventing progress in other areas. They will use other divisions to their benefit, but at the end of the day the current system does not depend on racism or other forms of prejudice for its survival.

    At the same time, none of this is to deny Dan’s point that we need to work out how to design our socioeconomic processes better to benefit all. But I think jrbarch’s suggestion, based on our previous exchanges, is that we need to follow our hearts on how to apply our minds.

  11. Tom, PG and Dan: Your first comments in this thread, which I just got around to reading, are especially awesome. Thanks.

  12. “But I think jrbarch’s suggestion, based on our previous exchanges, is that we need to follow our hearts on how to apply our minds.”[peterc]

    Almost there peter – I think we could say:

    – A happy heart is an inner issue, tied to experiencing or feeling a particular quality or energy (within each and every human consciousness, we label the energy of ‘peace fulfillment contentment joy ect…);

    The issue of the heart has absolutely nothing to do with our persona or anything that is going on in the outside world) – however there are down-stream flow-on effects to the mind (which does deal with the outside world);

    – In other words, the heart needs to be fulfilled for its own sake. The heart only has one message for us: ‘I want to be content’. The heart walks the path of the heart, the mind the path of the mind – both seek the same goal;

    – When the heart is content, the down-stream effect is the whole human being is content. Mind and ego settle down. Happy human beings are kind and considerate; human in fact ….!

    – So the suggestion is to give the heart priority; then calmly figure out the rest. There are two goals to shoot for ….

    Thanks for allowing me to express these ideas (which are a lot older than me by the way)….

  13. Thanks for the clarification, jrbarch. I’m getting there slowly, and trying to read up on the topic a little bit in an effort to understand some of the contributions by yourself as well as Tom Hickey and Clonal Antibody.

    No need to thank me for the space to convey your ideas. I should be thanking you and all the other regular contributors. The diversity of comments and opinions adds so much to the blog.

    Plus, I am learning a lot from reading everybody’s thoughts. I had the misfortune (or lack of foresight) to study economics (mainly the orthodoxy) at university when I could have been pursuing a genuine (liberal) education. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, but still have a long way to go.

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